LFF: Movie Review – SNOWTOWN
A dramatization of Australia’s most notorious serial killings, Snowtown is a modern true crime masterpiece and another worthy addition to the country’s ever-growing resume of incredible films.
Sick of the national stereotypes that have permeated through Western films, Australia has bitten back in the last decade with an assortment or gritty, harrowing crime dramas that have sought to unearth the dark underbelly of Australian society that is often hidden from the rest of the world. From 2006’s award winning Jindabyne to last year’s stunning Animal Kingdom, the films have been bleak in tone, harrowing in subject matter and brought to life in a raw, matter-of-fact fashion.
However, no matter how great this new wave of Australian cinema has been, the country has found its crowning achievement with Snowtown.
One of the most compelling, unforgettable and disturbing cinematic experiences the big screen has offered this year, the film is the true story of 16 year old Jamie who lives with his mother and two brothers in a northern Adelaide suburb forgotten by the government and neglected by the law in which violence, hatred and gossip thrive. Jamie yearns for escape and when the charismatic and engaging John Bunting begins to spend more time with his mother and the family, he begins to look up to the man as the father figure he never had. However, as their relationship grows closer, Jamie falls deeper into Bunting’s world of violence and murder.
Its first time director Justin Kurzel takes a journalistic approach to the story and addresses the killings in an authoritative, convincing and shockingly realized fashion rarely seen in crime cinema before. Rather than pretending to explain the warped nature of why Bunting killed his victims or explore how Jamie is swept into this world, for example, Snowtown puts these issues into the background and instead focuses on the ‘what’. Artistic liberties to help give a full-dimensional portrait of its characters aren’t taken here and conventional narrative structure is avoided with Kurzel choosing to instead directly lay out the horrors of these killings before our eyes.
Jamie, for example, is less of a rounded character with a traditional narrative arc than he is a vehicle through which we witness these murders that the Australian media later dubbed as the ‘bodies in the barrels’ killings. Kurzel gives him just enough depth for us to understand his actions in following Bunting, who is brought to life in a blistering performance by Daniel Henshall, but refuses to let the boy’s personal story take the focus away from the visceral horror of the serial killer’s spree.
This creative decision to intentionally avoid material that would give Snowtown excitement, twists and turns is one that will underwhelm many cinemagoers. However, it makes the movie so blunt and forthright that, although minimal in explanation and loose on story, Snowtown becomes one of the most powerful explorations of murder you will find. There are no distractions, after all, from Bunting’s actions or the emotional trauma that they cause its victims.
And traumatic they are. The violence is mostly implied and off screen – a commendable approach that therefore doesn’t glorify the actions of Bunting in any way – but still manages to chill your to the bone because of Kurzel’s incredibly oppressive and foreboding atmosphere. Through washed out colors, hand-held photography, natural sounds and tremendously bleak production design, he does the most traumatic thing any director could do with this subject matter: Like Jamie, he makes you feel like you’re in the room witnessing these horrors happen right in front of you.
It’s not a film you would want to return to any time soon, but Snowtown is nothing short of a masterpiece. Cinematic yet brutally honest, this is a depiction of murder unlike any that you’ve seen before; one that refuses to glorify its violence or insincerely analyze the actions of the people in the story and instead focuses solely on the horror of the killings. As a result, it’s bold, unwavering, jaw-dropping viewing that demands to be talked about. Do not miss this one.